On July 25, 1999, a few hours before the Woodstock ’99 festival ended, American band Red Hot Chili Peppers came on stage. The event had already witnessed a number of disasters, and the organizers thought it would be great to have a peaceful candle-light vigil to protest against gun violence in the U.S. The band played “UnderThe Bridge,” and all looked good. Suddenly, a fire broke out and within seconds, there was chaos. More fires popped up, and strangely enough, the Peppers had chosen a cover of the Jimi Hendrix song “Fire” as an encore. Things didn’t end there, as hundreds of agitators rioted, brought down a speaker tower, attacked food vendors and smashed ATM machines. It was animal behavior everywhere.
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, a three-part docu-series premiered recently on Netflix, is about a doomed music festival. Held three decades after the original Woodstock, a symbol of peace, love and music, and five years after the commercially-disastrous Woodstock ‘94, the 1999 gig was remembered for rioting, arson, mismanagement, cases of sexual assault, brazen nudity, terrible heat conditions, sickness caused by dehydration, people high on ecstasy, heaps of garbage, unreasonable pricing, alleged corporate greed and three deaths.
The film captures the three main days, dedicating an episode to each. There’s nothing about the pre-show concert on July 22, 1999. However, if you’re looking for a rock documentary featuring great appearances by Rage Against The Machine, Metallica, Live, Alanis Morissette and Creed, all of who were part of the lineup, you won’t find them here. There’s nothing remotely close to the performances of Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, all highlights of the 1969 festival. In short, this is more about the mayhem than the music. More about shock value than songwriting.
Director Jamie Crawford’s aim seems to be clear – to highlight all the mishaps that took place at the festival. He has used bytes, taken a few years after the festival, of participating musicians like Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, Gavin Rossdale of Bush, singer Jewel Kilcher and Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim, besides audience members, journalists, TV news presenters, MTV’s celebrity VJ Ananda Lewis, and the main organizers Michael Lang and John Scher. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett disappeared before one could blink. Depending on which side they were on, the interviewees said more or less the same thing.
Press conferences were filled with hogwash. Both Lang and Scher refused to take responsibility for the fiasco, with the latter even saying, “We’re happy, all is well, we haven’t had any tough incidents.” When questioned about the demolition of an art wall by angry protesters, Lang quipped, “The exterior wall makes an amazing souvenir, and people just couldn’t resist it… [they wanted] a piece of Woodstock.” Even Joe Griffo, former Mayor of Rome, New York, gave the fest a thumbs-up, and invited the organizers back for a repeat.
The series has showtime tidbits showing how soul and funk superstar James Brown refused to get on stage till his sudden demand for more money was met, how Jewel walked away after seeing the crowd get impatient, and how Sheryl Crow patiently handled obscene demands by some men with placards. However, many of the performances have been badly edited, and one rarely gets a taste of the actual music.
Those days, ‘nu metal’ was in vogue, and youngsters wanted music that was loud, angry and rebellious. We are talking of a time much before Linkin Park had burst on to the scene with the album Hybrid Theory in 2000. Even the Seattle grunge biggies of the early 1990s weren’t part of the line-up. Most people identified with Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name” and Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.” And if acts like James Brown and country star Willie Nelson were included, it was probably as a symbolic association with the 1969 sound.
The film’s focus is on three groups – besides concluding act Red Hot Chili Peppers, there was Korn on the opening day and Limp Bizkit on the second night. The Korn appearance is a classic example of the kind of music that was in demand at that time. The entire crowd seemed like one big unit, with headbanging and crowdsurfing everywhere. A lot of sexual misconduct was also reported when women were carried over the crowd.
If Korn set the pace for mob frenzy, Kid Rock asked the crowd to throw water bottles around. But the Limp Bizkit show was seen as the tipping point, and the song “Break Stuff” had people doing just that. Front man Fred Durst kept egging the audience, and many organizers, including Scher, blame him for making the crowd go out of control. Durst began by asking. “How many of you people here ever woke up one morning and just decided it wasn’t one of those days, and you’re gonna break some sh*t?” The more the crowd reacted, the more he persisted, asking them to “reach deep down inside and let it all out.” He even took a dig at Alanis Morissette, who appeared earlier.
Crawford’s docu-series lists all the things that went wrong, but it doesn’t attribute the crowd’s anger and behavior to any specific reason. There are references to the generational shift and how MTV had taken over youth tastes, but these are only through passing quotes. One of the comments talked about how today’s generation might vent out their feelings on social media platforms, but in the late 1990s, the chief option was physical violence and destruction, mainly resorted to by ‘frat boys.’
Thus, the viewer has to draw his own conclusions for the debacle. One of the reasons for the outbursts could be the high pricing – those days, a bottle of water cost 65 cents outside. At the festival, the price began at $4 and even went up to $12 on the final day. The heat was terrible too, almost a 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was barely any place to get shade. It was felt that for an event that had an estimated 220,000 people as maximum attendance at a given time, security measures were pathetic, with inexperienced “kids in yellow shirts” being hired.
On the second morning, the whole area was covered in trash, from food packs to liquor bottles to used tissues. The toilets were terribly managed too, the stench was unbearable and the showering stations were inadequate in number. It was no surprise then that many people decided to leave after day two, tired and disgruntled.
Some music lovers hung around till the end, believing rumours that a big surprise act was lined up after Red Hot Chili Peppers. The buzz was that it could be Prince, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or even Michael Jackson. But none of them came. All the crowd got to see was Peppers bassist Flea prance about naked on stage, and a video of the late guitar god Jimi Hendrix on the giant screen.
Even for OTT viewers, the film doesn’t end with any earworm material, which is surprising because the Woodstock ’99 double album released by Epic Records three months after the event had some great songs. Maybe the idea was to make viewers go back to the original Woodstock 1969 film for some actual music, peace and love. As Joni Mitchell wrote, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”